Apr 14, 2007

Myths and Folk-Tales of the Russians, Western Slavs and Magyars by Jeremiah Curtin

I had originally listed this under mythology, but I've switched it to folklore, because this is a collection of folktales. The title is misleading - there are no myths whatsoever, and this means that my quest for a Slavic Mythology book continues. I know not much is known about it, but I figure there must be books out there with the little that is known. If anyone has any suggestions, they'd be very much appreciated.

But misleading title aside, I loved this book. It's a wonderful collection of Russian, Czech and Hungarian folktales. The storytelling itself is marvelous - the prose is rhythmic and the stories flow very well, and many of the characteristics of the oral tale were preserved, but the writing is also quite poetic at times.

Many of the Russian tales in this collection are well known - they're part of Afanasieff's collection, and the Baba-Yaga, the Fire-Bird, Koshchei-Without-Death and Marya Morevna populate these pages. But there are also less-known tales. There was one I wasn't familiar with and especially liked - "The Feather of Bright Finist the Falcon" - because it's in some ways similar to my all-time favourite fairy-tale, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon".

What struck me the most about the Russian tales was how formulaic they are. I know that's a characteristic of folk and fairy tales in general, but I'd never before read a collection where this was as obvious as here. No wonder Propp was Russian. These tales are like puzzles where the pieces are arranged in different orders - the ending of one is, for example, the middle of another. Things often come in threes, or in three sequences of three, and certain phrases are repeated again and again.

Repetition has power over people, especially (but not only) over children. It gives things a ritual, sacred feel. The repetitions in fairy tales or nursery rhymes help us learn how to recognize patterns, and the predictability that comes along with that makes the world a much less frightening place.

Like in nursery rhymes, the repetition I found in these tales was charming. It's exciting to begin to recognize the shape of a tale and be able to predict what will happen next. It's exciting to be right about it, and it's even more exciting when a little variation, an unexpected twist, makes the prediction wrong, and we realize there's a new pattern which we're yet to map.

Repetition is abundant in these tales, but, to me, they were by no means repetitive in a pejorative sense. In fairy tales, like often in life, the charm is in the details, in the little variations that make each story unique. This is actually a theme I've been meaning to explore - routine and novelty, patterns and details both in tales and in life - and reading this collection gave me some ideas about how I might do it.

I also loved the Hungarian and Czech tales in this volume - these are two traditions I'd had absolutely no contact with before, and the tales in this book made me realize how rich they are. The Czech tales had a very refined irony I especially enjoyed.


  1. This one captures my interest, I think I'll be adding it to my list of books to read. Thanks for the review!

  2. No problem! I'll be looking forward to reading your thoughts on it.

  3. I love books like this. I usually try to buy them any time I see them. I will add this to the list, but considering how long it is, it will be a while before I read it!

  4. Yeah, it's quite long, and the thing about books like this is that, fascinating though they are, they don't suck you in like a novel does. Fortunately I was on my Easter break when I picked it up, so I managed to go through it in a week.


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